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Hirst Walker [1868-1957]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

WALKER, Hirst [1868—1957]

Tower Bridge, London

ca 1920

watercolor on paper / 3 inches by 6 inches

Watercolorist Hirst Walker was born in Malton, in the English north country. He lived and worked in Scarborough and Whitby where he became associated with the Staithes Group of Impressionist plein air artists who painted in that North Yorkshire coastal town at the turn of the century. A miniature watercolor was commissioned in 1923 by the Royal Household for Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, possibly about the time of this small work.

The iconic Tower Bridge, built between 1886 and 1894, is also represented by another work in the Community Collection.


  • ex·pla·na·tion
noun: explanation; plural noun: explanations
a statement or account that makes something clear.
“the birth rate is central to any explanation of population trends”
synonyms: clarification, simplification; More

description, report, statement;
elucidation, exposition, expounding, explication;
gloss, interpretation, commentary, exegesis
“an explanation of the ideas contained in the essay”
a reason or justification given for an action or belief.
“Freud tried to make sex the explanation for everything”
synonyms: account, reason; More

justification, excuse, alibi, defense, vindication, story, answers
“I owe you an explanation”

In my experience the best way to understand something, anything, is to explain it to someone else, because:

  • their very willingness to listen presumes a degree of interest you shouldn’t ignore;
  • the structure of your telling will vary and is likely to: 1) improve with each iteration, or 2) become formulaic, uninteresting, and/or unresponsive;
  • you must understand the difference between ignorance and stupid: the former is simply uninformed, the latter uninformable [There is also a distinction to be made between dumb and stupid, but that’s a topic for another forum];
  • it will—if you’ll just listen to yourselves—enhance your own understanding of the topic and improve whatever it is you’re trying to describe—in other words, it offers feedback; but
  • it can also border on justification, which may be offensive to your listeners and unsettling to you, since you had once seemed so committed and have now sown the seeds of your own doubt and undermined the curiosity you inferred from their query.

I had coffee recently with four freshmen, applying for admission to our program, who may have got more than a tasty beverage for their time. I surely did, because it afforded an opportunity to hone my telling of Agincourt. [Is it even possible to have a conversation not involving Agincourt? Probably not.]

Design and Narrative

Once again, Douglas Adams rescues me from the forest of my own narcissism—or is it swamp? When I’m able to stand outside myself—which, if you weren’t aware, is not possible for a narcissist—I begin to understand the notion of wholisticism. Is that even a word? Anyway, it seems Dirk Gently’s wholistic approach to the solution of crime has become my model. I wrote all this without recalling its likely source: Dirk Gently’s Wholistic Detective Agency:

“What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your own mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that’s really the essence of programming. By the time you’ve sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you’ve certainly learned something about it yourself. The teacher usually learns more than the pupil. Isn’t that true?”
― Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Adams is clearly a better writer than I shall ever be. But aside from that uncomfortable truth, he has much more to offer on the notion of the interrelatedness of all things. So this quote is more to the point:

“I’m very glad you asked me that, Mrs Rawlinson. The term `holistic’ refers to my conviction that what we are concerned with here is the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. I do not concern myself with such petty things as fingerprint powder, telltale pieces of pocket fluff and inane footprints. I see the solution to each problem as being detectable in the pattern and web of the whole. The connections between causes and effects are often much more subtle and complex than we with our rough and ready understanding of the physical world might naturally suppose, Mrs Rawlinson.”

“Let me give you an example. If you go to an acupuncturist with toothache he sticks a needle instead into your thigh. Do you know why he does that, Mrs Rawlinson?

“No, neither do I, Mrs Rawlinson, but we intend to find out. A pleasure talking to you, Mrs Rawlinson. Goodbye.”

And so it was I found myself deep in the nexus of Agincourt’s core story. With each telling, I also detect the deepening web of relationships, both human and material, in this factional community.

See: Introduction 1.1


Cecil (on varying the monotony)

Our friend and former department chair Cecil Elliott had a way of cutting through the academic argle-bargle (i.e., obfuscatory crap), laying bare the essence of any issue at hand. That’s one of the qualities some of us most admired in him and, simultaneously, dreaded that any one of us might be its target; if so, it wouldn’t have been without cause. I can’t recall the first time I heard Cecil make this observation — varying the monotony — but I suspect it may have been an occasion not unlike my experience yesterday during the round of second-year reviews in ARCH272.

The students had been asked to design mid-sized mixed-use buildings on one of four Moorhead-Fargo inner-city sites; to create “neighborhoods” that outsiders might also enjoy visiting. These were team projects in which each student was assigned a site probably no larger than a half city block; of including (at least) housing and some commercial activity; and of coördinating their proposals within the team. In my comments, I observed (though they may already have made those observations among themselves) there are several comparable projects in the community which could have informed their own designs:

  • Downtown Moorhead at Main Avenue and Fourth Street, an Urban Renewal area with a similar scale and program;
  • A parking lot (I was about to say “vacant” but that’s not quite accurate; vacant and empty aren’t interchangeable) east of Renaissance Hall along N.P. Avenue in Fargo;
  • The Roberts Street Commons project nearing completion at Roberts Street and Second Avenue, Fargo, again with a similar mix of apartments and retail;
  • 220 West, an apartment building at North Tenth Street and Third Avenue (which includes no commercial space); and
  • 300 Lime, occupying a half block at Eleventh Street North and Fourth Avenue (which also includes no commercial space).

These five projects span a fifteen-year period and are similar in bulk and footprint, even if they differ in program elements. And they offer important lessons to those second-year students I met Friday morning.

Nineteenth-century American cities played by a different set of rules than they have, say, since 1950, when government-sponsored Urban Renewal changed the character of our center cities and practically obliterated any rules which had shaped them prior to the Second World War. And while I use the word “rules”, there was no handbook furtively passed among owners, architects, and builders who created the colorful block fronts represented by this panoramic view of Broadway in downtown Fargo, taken about 1910. The “rules” were a kind of default, a broadly held pattern accepted by all concerned. If only we did have such a handbook.

A typical urban block front circa 1900, whether in Keokuk or Kalispell, was divided into 25-foot-wide building sites, usually set within the Jeffersonian grid of our westward Manifest Destiny. If they deviate, it is usually a reaction to topography, water courses, railway rights-of-way, or some other natural or human factor. Within this commercial cartesian grid, speculators responded to market forces (or attempted to capitalize and redirect those forces toward their own ends) with generally two- and three-story commercial fronts of brick and cast iron, accented with moderate amounts of wood and stone — depending on the community’s prior experience with fire.

Architects or builders — in the 19th century there was little practical difference between them — satisfied the client’s desire for solutions which balanced stylistic expression with reasonable economy. Brick — uniform or multi-colored; smooth and textured;  corbelled and coursed; laid in running bond, soldier courses, headers and stretchers, basket-weave and herringbone — accented with stone and/or terra cotta, and spanned with cast or wrought iron were the predominant material palette. Personal flourishes included at the very least personal or business names, dates, initials, personal, fraternal, or corporate symbols, and other ornamental touches. Floor heights varied within reasonable limits; the ceiling heights for a shallow 25-foot-wide store might differ from a deep 50-foot width, and were often guided by the length of a flight of stairs patrons would tolerate. The elements might vary, but the template remained  fairly consistent, so it’s no wonder our Midwestern cities appear to have been variations upon a theme.

Now, safely beyond the bulldozer mentality of Urban Renewal, and well within the historic preservation mindset encouraged by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, Historic District ordinances often provide guidelines for the insertion of new buildings in historic fabric, hoping to achieve some degree of compatibility. There is where we are likely to find those rules — long after the fact and perhaps only a ouija-board-induced approximation of those 19th century “rules” we’d like to believe had been in effect at the time our great-grandparents walked those streets. Such guidelines, whether government- or self-imposed, might have shaped as readily a Main Street store front or the regeneration of a place as iconic as Potsdammer Platz in Berlin, and always with mixed results.

In Cecil Elliott’s terms, they had learned how to vary the monotony.

300 Lime in the foreground and 220 West in the center distance offer contrasting case studies in “varying the monotony”.

It’s highly likely I’ll have something else to offer on this topic, so be forewarned.

these theses


noun; plural, thē⋅sēs (thee-sees)

  1. a proposition stated or put forward for consideration, especially one to be discussed and proved or to be maintained against objections:
    He vigorously defended his thesis on the causes of war.
  2. a subject for a composition or essay.
  3. a dissertation on a particular subject in which one has done original research, as one presented by a candidate for a diploma or degree.
  4. Music. the downward stroke in conducting; downbeat.
  5. Prosody.
    • a part of a metrical foot that does not bear the ictus or stress.
    • (less commonly) the part of a metrical foot that bears the ictus.
  6. Philosophy. See under Hegelian dialectic.

Our end-of-the-academic-year festivities are complete — tests graded (except mine, of course); projects reviewed; awards presented — and with them, a sure sign of summer.

During the last four days each of us (faculty) served as outside or “blind” reviewers (because, in theory, most of us have had no direct connection with the thesis process). In my case, there were three projects assigned to me, but we often sit in on others, hoping to be informed or out of a perverse curiosity; I did some of both. And during the week there is also a good deal of water cooler conversation, in hushed tone among two or three of us, about the general level of their quality this year and inevitable comparisons with previous classes.

This year my review of fifth-year students was complemented by an invitation to do the same with a section of second-year design (ARCH272) projects. And that review has raised two observations I’ll make here (or somewhere else, but this forum is handy): #1) I saw second-year work whose trajectory, if unimpeded during the next three years, will result in an epic crop of theses for the Class of 2021; and #2) a sense of wonder about the thesis process itself, and concern whether I could accomplish anything comparable to our new graduates. Consider the first of these as having been officially asked and answered: I saw remarkable work in at least one section of ARCH272 — fifteen students — concluding their first year of design work, and look forward with relish to their accomplishments next year and beyond. My second observation requires a few more words.

The thesis is a two-semester process which actually begins at the end of fourth-year with thoughtful consideration of the project topic. A lengthy manual or guide has evolved over many years to help students focus on a topic that is: a) appropriately architectural; b) suitably complex; c) sufficiently worthy of a year-long investigation; and d) encompasses a philosophical issue larger than the project itself, i.e., the project type is a vehicle. So, a single-family lake cabin for Aunt Harriet won’t cut the mustard.

Frankly, I admit there are projects hanging on our fifth floor that make little sense to me, but that’s different matter for another time. Instead, I’ve begun to wonder what my own thesis would be in such a framework: What topic would I propose now for that year-long exploration of a significant architectural issue? During a pit-stop at a colleague’s office late this afternoon, I suddenly had an answer — but you’re not going to like itA copy of the actual Thesis Manual isn’t at hand, so the following is (subject to modification) a preliminary statement and what I might consider an argument for its acceptance.

THESIS: I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours

TITLE: A Carnegie Era Public Library in the Style of Architect Louis Sullivan

BUILDING TYPE: A public library typical of those underwritten by the philanthropy of industrialist Andrew Carnegie during the period 1909-1919

SITE: A Midwestern community of a size approximate to those receiving a median Carnegie grant

PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION(S) (and certain propositions to be tested): 

1) What is the relationship between a specific building type (in this case, a public library) and the socio-economic matrix of its time and place? 

  • Throughout history, but especially during the years between the Civil and First World wars, architects have innovated, as leaders in cultural progress. The Protestant church building in the United States is evidence of that phenomenon in the later 19th century [I might just as reasonably propose the design of an Akron-Auditorium church]; the public library exemplifies the early 20th.

2) What role has the public library played in the cultural life of the United States? Especially, how can the infusion of massive philanthropy influence, even redirect, the genesis and evolution of a particular building type? 

  • Cultural institutions, government programs, and private philanthropy have been and are likely to remain agents of architectural change.

3) What is the relationship between imaginative design and the materials available for their execution (presuming this is a dynamic relationship)?

  • Generally, the relationship between the architect and the material manufacturer-supplier has reversed from its status early in the 20th century. A century ago, manufacturers were capable of accommodating specific design requirements—such as ornamental cast iron and terra cotta. That relationship circa 1910-1920 was essential to Sullivan’s aesthetic.

4) Is it possible to identify the actual process of architectural design? How has it evolved, say, during the last century; is it also possible to simulate a particular architect’s process? Specifically, given that the American public library became almost formulaic during the first quarter of the 20th century, how might a renowned architect like Louis Sullivan — who designed just one library long before the era of Carnegie funding — have approached an unfamiliar building type late in his career?

  • A massive academic study of architectural creativity was conducted in 1958-1959 by the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley. In a Freudian sense, it may be possible to retroactively apply those methods to architects no longer living — Michelangelo, for example, or Frank Lloyd Wright — and attempt to understand their creative processes posthumously. Louis Sullivan is the case study I propose.

Yes, this may not be in the current NDSU ALA Thesis Manual format; just a guess on my part how I might propose the founding question of the Agincourt Project as a thesis topic. And despite criticism from some quarters (that the project has marginal legitimacy), I’d be proud to place this proposition in the evaluation-approval process. Would it be approved?

And then, of course, there’s the unspoken question: Would I be able to do it?

PS: I was tempted to create a tongue-twister, like “seize these theses” or “these theses seethe” but resisted. Sometimes it’s best to leave bad enough alone.

“We will rebuild!”

“We will rebuild!” says Aunty Entity, Tina Turner’s character in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.” After all, she’d lived through the Apocalypse; the destruction of Bartertown was a minor irritation. Such optimism (or is it pigheadedness?) in the face of adversity is commendable. But I suspect there is a hint of spite there, too. I’ve written a piece on spite, wondering if some architectural evidence of spite remains in Agincourt. And sure enough, there not only is, but I’d written it into the story years ago, not recognizing it nor taking full advantage of the spiteful revenge inherent in the story.

Dearborn Street and Congress Parkway, Chicago, IL 60605

Next Fall semester, fate willing, I’ll be teaching a section of ARCH 371, Third Year Design, a studio/laboratory that also coördinates with a student field trip to Chicago, a few weeks into the term. Chicago is my home, as many know, and I may know more about the place — or at least have more than a passing familiarity with it — than most of our faculty, but for me it’s just good to go “home” and have a meal or two at my favorite watering holes — like Miller’s Pub on Wabash or the Berghoff on West Adams. [Pardon the baldfaced self-promotion; I do not work for the Chamber of Commerce.]

The trip will also be an opportunity to give students, especially those in my studio, to visit one of the sites we’ll use for a studio project: a sliver of land at the corner of Congress Parkway and Dearborn Street, a 67 foot by 19 foot postage stamp left over from a highway widening project of the 50s. In the aerial view above, it’s that tiny patch of green in an ocean of asphalt and concrete. [The big copper-roofed building just to the right is the Harold Washington Public Library, Chicago’s “poster child” for Post-Modernism.] The Project: a ten- to twelve-story building for one of a variety of purposes, including a boutique hotel — the HoDo on its end — a foreign consulate, and a library-archive. The Challenge: cramming required program elements, structural solidity, and life-safety amenities into the equivalent of a missile silo. The Lesson: you will never again consider so judiciously each cubic inch of available space — unless you’re packing for Mars.

In the early 1950s, Congress Street didn’t amount to very much, a narrow thoroughfare in the city’s Cartesian grid. But the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, President Eisenhower’s initiative for the Interstate Highway System, soon gave the street a more prominent position as the downtown feeder to what would become I-290, a.k.a., the Eisenhower Expressway.

Demolition of several buildings fronting Congress Street provided for three lanes in each direction, plus generous turn lanes and a partial landscaped median. But in a few cases it also left residual parcels of unmarketable real estate. In fact, I’ve been walking past this particular piece since I was about fifteen — when the area was “Skid Row” — and later on the way to Dearborn Station and the Santa Fe Railway journey to school in Oklahoma. The site has been host to a hot dog vendor, a billboard, a graveled parking lot for no more than six cars, and currently a raised patch of grass used by no one, as far as I can tell. Putting a building there is not an act of spite; it would be one of foolhardy entrepreneurial courage — or the chutzpah of Aunty Entity; the sort of design problem I call “packing the suitcase”.

But Agincourt?

When Cassius Hyde Miller, tobacconist, died in 1896, he and his widow Annabelle hadn’t quite recovered from the Panic of 1893, but tobacco held a strong future and Mrs Miller persisted with the business. The Hazzard House hotel burned a year later, in 1897, but her business-cum-residence was spared. By late 1898 a stock company had formed to build The Blenheim, a replacement but more upscale hostelry, and Belle (as she was known) received what they felt was a generous offer for her property. Stubborn in the face of adversity, she also realized it would not be enough to see her through old age.

The hotel stockholders needed southern views for a large number of rooms, however — they all faced outward from a central atrium — and the loss of those sixteen rooms put the project in jeopardy, whereupon the city stepped in [they liked the project] and offered an incentive: a twenty-foot wide alley aligned with the one beside the Opera House would be built; ten feet shaved from the hotel property and ten feet shaved from the Miller land, thinking this would entice her to sell.

It was about about this time when Mrs Miller’s brother Armand Schert arrived from somewhere along the Mississippi — Memphis or Vicksburg, I think — to take matters in hand. Schert reviewed the proposal but he and his sister were in no position to bargain. So a ten-foot strip of land was taken by eminent domain, which the city believed would lead to acquisition of all twenty-five feet and displacement of the Miller’s altogether. But they hadn’t counted on Armand’s creativity: the city could have those ten feet, but the remaining fifteen-foot-wide shop and dwelling would stay, with a new side wall confronting the new hotel. Then Schert extracted a bit more revenge the city hadn’t anticipated.

Cassius (a.k.a., Cash) Miller had also been a drayman and had kept a team of horses in stables at the east end of the property. Now, with the entire side wall revealed, it could be used even more effectively as rental space, and the former haymow was also available for development. Those sixteen hotel rooms would enjoy a panorama of horse shit.

What he placed above the stable is the second part of the story: Mrs Miller’s Enterprise.